Shark of the earth warning as toxic invasive worms plague spreads

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An invasive species of worm known as “the shark of the earth” is causing serious concern in parts of the United States after being introduced as feed for zoo animals.

The species Pheretima, also known as “jumping worms” or crazy worms” has already caused widespread damage in the US Midwest and is now spreading in the Northeast.

“Their activity has toppled stone walls in New England,” scientist Gale Ridge wrote in a recent alert.

“Many native trees and plants (including garden plants) cannot germinate or develop in this altered soil, while invasive species thrive.”

“Jumping worms” don’t actually jump, but are excellent climbers and have been found in quite high buildings.

“These are earthworms on steroids,” says Ridge, who works for the entomology department at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven.

Jumping worms are “noticeably fast moving, highly active worms with a strong rigid muscular body that can whip violently when disturbed,” writes Ridge.

They were first introduced to the US in 1948 as food for Australian platypuses at the Bronx Zoo in New York.

Recent severe storms have spread them over a wide range, where they quickly displace native species and leave the soil sterile.

Because they tend to accumulate high concentration of heavy metals in their bodies, they can be highly toxic to native birds.

They can also increase greenhouse gas emissions from the soil by up to 50% – twice as much as European earthworms.

The worms are most active in September and October but there are concerns that rising global temperatures will allow the wriggly pests to reproduce twice as often, giving rise to two generations a year.

Currently, there are no well-established proven methods for control or pesticides registered for use against jumping worms.

Authorities recommend that any gardeners finding the features – which have a distinctive “collar” behind their heads – drown them in soapy water or bag them up and leave them in the hot sun to die.

Even if you think they’re dead, the Connecticut warning stresses, don’t just throw the bodies back into flowerbeds: “Some may be stunned, recover, and continue to reproduce."

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